Note: After writing this article, commenter Jim in Littleton in the comments of “Wanted — 100,000 Ventilators” pointed to the article “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance,” by Tomas Pueyo. It is mandatory reading to all interested in the coronavirus.
Wearing a mask to protect yourself from germs and air pollution is quite normal in East Asia. In China it is now even mandatory in a number of provinces when leaving the house. The coronavirus scare has made the public and the government even more conscious of the threat of infection.
The normal masks people wear are not much protection against viruses. Even the medical N95 masks don’t produce complete protection. Unfortunately, the N95 is about the best you can have short of using full hazmat face protection. China was producing about 20 million masks per day before the coronavirus outbreak, only a portion of those masks being the medical-grade N95 masks.
China has 35 million health care workers and 200 million in primary industries. The health care workers are advised to switch masks at least every 4 hours. There are another 350 million workers in secondary industries. Besides those workers, other people need masks too. Kids going to school, people visiting markets and shops, people traveling in public transport — all activities better done with a mask.
To protect everybody in the health care and primary industries with only a single a mask per day, China needs 235 million masks per day, preferably of the N95 grade. To protect the whole population, China needs over a billion masks per day.
The N95 masks are made with a non-woven polypropylene filter under clean room conditions. Polypropylene is in short supply and you don’t create clean room conditions for a large industrial production process overnight. For fully automated mask production in high volumes, you need sophisticated machines. Of course, you can order them at the makers of the currently used machines, but there are hundreds waiting in line before you.
And here lies the opportunity for carmakers. Most carmakers can make this type of machinery themselves. They have clean room production facilities. They can even repurpose parts of their paint shops as clean room mask production. Carmakers are used to high-volume mass production. The non-woven polypropylene filter material is used in the sound and thermal insulation of cars. Carmakers have all the resources to build production lines for the N95 masks. Both BYD and GAC, large Chinese carmakers, have made dozens of automated mask production machines. BYD is now producing 5 million masks per day, besides 300,000 bottles of disinfectant. That will grow to 10 million masks per day within a month.
Beside these two, carmaker SAIC–GM–Wuling, iPhone maker Foxconn, and over 700 other companies have also started producing face masks. They’ve gone from producing a bit more than needed for their own needs to millions per day for the market. Factories can only re-open when they have enough protective gear for their employees. The market will be production constrained for some time.
With these examples, what will US carmakers do? Not only the Detroit shrinking three, but also Nissan, Toyota, Honda, BMW, and of course Tesla. They can at least partly reopen their factories to make medical equipment. With the coronavirus likely here to stay, many millions of American workers will need their daily dose of masks for a while. Using the New York metro system without a mask might be challenging to many. When Black Friday comes, the crowds will need tens of millions of masks.
European carmakers and other industrial giants (and dwarfs) have nothing better to do than start making medical supplies. The situation in the USA is dire, with 125,000 confirmed cases (and many more unconfirmed cases). In Europe, we have 350,000 more confirmed cases. It’ll get worse tomorrow.
Without more effective policies to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, we will soon need 7 billion masks per day. Because that is the size of the exposed world population.
Here is a business opportunity that could be a very small silver lining in these difficult times.